On Friday, Notre Dame football fans got some expected news and some unexpected news when Kyle Hamilton and Kyren Williams declared for the NFL Draft and subsequently opted out of the Fiesta Bowl. Most assumed Hamilton was NFL bound and unlikely for the Fiesta Bowl since his mid-season injury, but Williams’ announcement – at least with regards to the Fiesta Bowl – came as more of a surprise. Luckily for the Irish, they are well-positioned for the absence of both as they attempt to end their major bowl drought against Oklahoma State.
Heading into the season, we all knew we were almost assuredly watching the final season of Kyle Hamilton in a Notre Dame uniform. As soon as 2022 mock drafts started getting cranked out, Hamilton was listed as a top-10 pick. Most felt that Williams had a chance to leave early as well, assuming he replicated his 2020 success, but as recently as earlier this week, Williams had said that he was planning on playing in the Fiesta Bowl at the time.
Notre Dame got used to playing without Kyle Hamilton this season after he suffered a knee injury against USC and didn’t return to the field the rest of the season. In his absence, sophomores Xavier Watts and Ramon Henderson emerged after Henderson moved from corner and Watts moved from receiver to ROVER to safety. Notre Dame also got strong play from DJ Brown after Hamilton went down.
The Irish are not used to playing without Kyren Williams like they are Hamilton, but Notre Dame’s backfield has other talented running backs ready to step in. Chris Tyree missed time in the second half of the season but was getting healthy at the end of the season and looking like his old self. Tyree only ran for 204 yards this year after an impressive 496 as a freshman, but by the Stanford game, it looked like the turf toe injury he suffered against Virginia Tech was no longer hindering him.
Logan Diggs seized an opportunity for playing time with Tyree hurting and made the most of it. Diggs ran 42 times for 200 yards and three touchdowns on the season. He also made one of the highlight plays of the year by hurdling a Virginia defender with relative ease.
With Williams out, Tyree and Diggs will be Notre Dame’s one-two punch, but there will be an opportunity for either Audric Estime or C’bo Flemister for snaps they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. Estime only saw run against Georgia Tech but was impressive with 61 yards on six carries. Flemister has played sparingly this season after having a sizable role a year ago. Flemister ran for ten touchdowns combined in 2019 and 2020 but recorded just three total carries this season.
Obviously, Notre Dame’s chances of ending the major bowl drought would be a lot easier if Notre Dame had both on the field, but Notre Dame has the talent on the roster to be alright. Williams’s absence will likely be felt more because Oklahoma State’s offense isn’t its calling card – its defense is. Having a back like Willimas, who continually maximizes his runs and turns one-yard losses into five and six-yard gains regularly.
Notre Dame hasn’t had a lot of opt-outs the last few years since the Irish were in the playoffs in 2018 and 2020. The 2019 roster didn’t have any top-line draft prospects. The last top-line player Notre Dame head heading into a non-playoff bowl was Jaylon Smith in 2015, and we all know how that one ended.
A lot of fans get upset over the opt-outs, but 99.9% of fans have never been in a position where so much money was on the line. For instance, the 5th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft came with a first NFL contract worth $30.8. The first pick in the 2nd round got a rookie contract worth $9M. That’s a huge difference, and while most NFL-bound players have insurance policies for injury, they aren’t usually a 1:1 of what they’d lose.
Smith, for instance, had an insurance policy in place for his junior season. Still, he reportedly only received a $700,000 payout even though the injury cost him roughly $10-15M on his first contract. And because of the structure of the policy, he had to eventually pay it back once his career earnings topped a specified amount. So these insurance policies that people point to as “reasons” that players should play in bowl games are not all that they’re cracked up to be.